Whiten’ up

While we have now become more familiar with blackface, white people are not the only ones to change the color of their skin and take on a new persona. Blackface minstrelsy might have been all the rage by gathering popularity and attention in the nineteenth and twentieth century, but behind closed doors, whiteface was growing among slaves through illegal late night cabals. Just as blackface was for white people, whiteface allows black people to assume a new identity comically, one that comes with privilege, power, and what it means to be white.

In a “Saturday Night Live” skit in 1984, Eddie Murphy becomes a “white man.”1
The lightening of his skin, mustache, and change in hair shows the physical changes he undertook to become white. To prepare for his disguise, Murphy is shown watching TV to analyze how white men walk and act, to the audiences amusement. He practiced his “white man” voice that sounded more like a bark and authoritative. It is comedic to watch his experience of privilege, such as getting a newspaper for free from a fellow white man instead of having to pay for it. While applying for a loan at a bank with nothing to his name, he is turned down by a black man, but when the banker is replaced by a white man, stacks of money get shoved into his hands with jolly words of “pay us back-or don’t!” The skit puts a comic spin on the underlying issue of privilege and trustworthiness.

When Murphy was on the bus, as soon as the last black person got off, it became a  party with wine, cheese and jazz music complete with clapping by a white guy who had no sense of rhythm. It depicts that life as a white person is a constant party. It is comparable to the modern day slogan of “white people be like.” In social media, a platform where people try to be the best versions of themselves, girls are lightening their skin, straightening their hair, and becoming blonde; an unmistakable trait for people of European descent. It is problematic that, what some deem as the best version of themselves, is stripping their blackness. Even our Beloved Beyoncé is known to almost always have dyed blonde hair to look more European instead of embracing her natural curls. Video tutorials flood Youtube with “natural whiteface.”2

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Beyoncé with straightened, then curled, blonde hair.

For as long as their has been differences in race, there has been others trying to copy and make fun of the “other”. Eddie Murphy in Saturday Night Live is a classic example of a race poking fun of the traits that come along with the other race. Fortunately for the actor, is was done in 1984, after the civil rights movement, so the fear of being criticized or physically hurt was lessened than predecessors. Still, it goes to show that just like blackface, with a little makeup, anyone can be anything.

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